Tuesday, February 24, 2015

1C and all: Citizenfour (Edward Snowden) on HBO

English 1C students are currently studying the CIA and other U.S. intelligence operations. We have discussed how Edward Snowden, pictured above, leaked massive amounts of National Security Administration (NSA) documents in 2013, and he might be of special interest to students, whether enrolled in the course or not. 

His story is told in the award-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour, which won the Academy Award in its category. Broadcast on HBO on February 23, 2015, it might be rebroadcast in the days ahead. You can also see it, thanks to the stellar sleuthing of Jorge Ramirez, at this page. Jorge writes: "After clicking on the movie title, the links should appear on the left hand side of the page. Go through these links to find which works best for your computer."

New York Times editorial claims the documents Snowden leaked show "the vast scope of the National Security Agency’s reach into the lives of hundreds of millions of people in the United States and around the globe, as it collects information about their phone calls, their email messages, their friends and contacts, how they spend their days and where they spend their nights. The public learned in great detail how the agency has exceeded its mandate and abused its authority, prompting outrage at kitchen tables and at the desks of Congress, which may finally begin to limit these practices."

You can read about Snowden's life at bio. There are also numerous Snowden video interviews and reports at NBC News. Thanks to Jones Ou--a big thank you!--for providing a link to a conversation Snowden had on Reddit, Feb. 23rd, 2015. Click on this to read the conversation. The PBS Newshour broadcast this report on Snowden and Citizenfour on February 13, 2015.

The trailer for Citizenfour, the 2014 documentary on Snowden, appears above. Laura Poitras, the director of Citizenfour, was contacted by Snowden in early 2013 and assisted him in leaking the NSA documents.  You can read about her at The New Yorker and The New York Times.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Check English with McCabe daily. I will post updates here re: classes, not on Canvas. (Updated Feb. 23rd.)

English 1B re: Death of a Salesman
The remainder of Death of a Salesman will be shown on Monday, Feb. 23rd. The assigned Death of a Salesman essay draft will be due now on Wed., Feb. 25th; the essay revision will be due on Mon., March 2nd. Also, for Mon., March 2nd, remove Kafka from your reading assignment on the syllabus. Bring Literature to class on Wed., Feb. 25th, Mon., March 2nd, and Wed., March 4th.

English 1C Group Presentations: 
If you have questions about how to conduct research for this assignment and the presentation itself, see details on Fair Play post, below.

English 9 Schedule
Wed., 2/25:
Group re: "I'm Jumping Off the Bridge" (106)
Group re: "Breeds of America" (66)
CN: Gerard (50)
Mon., 3/2:
Draft Due: Profile of Place/Person
CN: Cheuse (34); CN: Lopez (327)
Wed. 3/4:
Group: "The Girls in My Town" (171)

Friday, February 20, 2015


FAIR PLAY group presentations
You'll see on the syllabus that there are Fair Play group presentations coming up. They will be about one of the scenarios from Fair Play. Groups will pick their scenario from the book, but it must be one that is different than all other scenarios presented or one that I have scheduled for the class.

Groups will be formed at random by the instructor. Groups can request to do a particular scenario, but their preference is not a guarantee of assignment. Each student in the group will also write an essay about the assigned scenario and the moral questions raised by it. Details about the essay will be made available at the February 19th class.

Once your group is formed contact other members of your group by email, text or in-person. 

Read all scenarios to be presented by the class. When not presenting give the presenters your attention and participate in the discussion.

The group presentations will last at a minimum of 30 minutes each.  Often they last longer.

All group members should assist--must assist--in the preparation and presentation of the analysis of the scenario.

Research for the Presentation and Essay: Here are some tasks each group must perform. Do research for the presentation:  When gathering information, whether written or video text, be sure to test the source for reliability and relevance.  I invite you to look at Secrecy News website and search for additional sources.  Make use of Olson's book, from his openings (i.e., Preface, Acknowledgements, Introduction, Philosophical and Historical Arguments, U.S. Attitudes to Toward Spying) to the end of the book (Afterword, Notes About the author).

More Research for the Presentation and Essay: Searching EBSCOhost should suffice in finding sources. If you have not used EBSCOhost before you will find a link to it on the PCC library's page for databases. EBSCOhost is helpful because you can limit your search to types of publications, including scholarly journals, particular newspapers and magazines, and full-text articles. Also, work with members of your group to find sources, especially as you get ready to do your presentation. Your colleagues may be the best sources you have. Having trouble finding EBSCOhost? Try this link.

Other things to keep in mind for your presentation:

*Offer detailed real-life examples similar to the scenario that you are assigned.

*Present both sides of the argument.

*When making your presentation engage the class and, importantly, other members of your group re: the scenario's debate.  Notes are fine, but please do not read from a prepared essay.

*Look at the presentation as an opportunity to teach each other and the class about the issue involved. You can act (yes, theatrical performances are welcomed), offer examples from history (teach yourself and us something), and use visuals (a little video entertainment or work of art can often be helpful.) Powerpoint presentations are not necessary. Sometimes you are better off without them.

*Good video sources include various PBS news programs. Find links to these sources and other news outlets at English with McCabe under the category for "NEWSPAPERS, MAGAZINES, JOURNALS, FILM, TV & RADIO." You'll find it on the right side of the blog's front page. 

CONTACT ME BY EMAIL RE: group's preferences
One person from each group must send me and all group members one email by Tues., Feb. 17th, 10:00PM with the following information:
On the subject line:
English 1C day, section number, day & time we meet, FAIR PLAY
In the message field:
Provide four scenario and date preferences. Rank scenario preferences, one, two, etc. For each scenario provide its title, scenario number, and page number. Name your date preferences in order of preference; first, second, etc. The scheduled dates of the presentations appear on the syllabus. Note: these dates are always subject to change.
After the list of scenarios and dates, list the FULL NAMES (as they appear on the roll, plus nickname, if they have one) of the group members.
Remember, get this information to me by Tuesday, February 17th, 10 PM. The sooner you send this email to me the better chance you will have of getting your preferred scenario and date to present.
I will notify by email assigned scenarios and presentation date.

Documenting James Olson's Fair Play for your essay
In your essay you are likely to include a passage that Olson has quoted. You are, then, "quoting a quote," more commonly referred to as an indirect source. For your  in-text citation when Olson quotes someone else, whether it is a philosopher (like Aristotle) or a commentator (like Adm. Bobby Inman), do the following: within your signal phrase name the person that Olson is quoting; introduce the quote; present the quoted material; and then follow the quoted passage with this parenthetical citation: (qtd. in Olson 15). The "15" represents an example of the page number where the quoted passage appears. When presenting Olson's Fair Play on the Works Cited page, just give the standard bibliographic entry for a book. You will not be naming the philosopher (like Aristotle) or commentator (like Adm. Bobby Inman) in the bibliographic entry.

If you have questions or comments about the assignment, whether the written or class presentation portion, post them in this comment section in English.

Here are other sources to see: A brief interview with Olson about Fair Play from CSPAN 2.   The CIA posted a review of Fair Play on their website May 2007.

As we read Fair Play and information about its author James Olson, it is worth taking a look at a couple of links about him and Valerie Plame; all are related to Fair Play, the book by James Olson.  He mentions Plame in his book.

James Olson interview on YouTube (embedded above)

Dave McIntyre biography (the man who interviewed James Olson). 

Valerie Plame on 60 minutes (updated link, 1/14/13)

Valerie Plame's Fair Game first chapter and reviews at Amazon and  news about Plame at The New York Times

*Videos re: History of the CIA:
Tim Weiner, reporter for The New York Times and author of Legacy of Ashes: History of the CIA, talks about his book on C-SPAN in 2007. You can watch it here. You can also watch his talk on the CIA at the WGBH Forum. The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee released a report in December 2014 about the CIA and the use of torture. Weiner was interviewed by U.S. News and World Report about the committee's findings. More links to Tim Weiner topics can be found at the National Book Award site; the National Book Award was given to Weiner for his book Legacy of Ashes

Former English 1C student Gerardo Sanchez posted a comment with an interesting link.  Operation Dark Heart by Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer (ret.) was censored, or redacted as we have seen practiced in Fair Play. As Gerardo reports,  "Recently the book Operation Dark Heart was censored by the government [which] purchased 10,000 first edition printings, destroyed them, and redacted the second edition."  Follow the links and see a side-by-side comparison of pages as they appeared in Operation Dark Heart's original form and the redacted version.  Thanks, Gerardo!

The Los Angeles Times reported on 10/10/10 that the censorship of Operation Dark Heart pushed it up the bestseller lists for Amazon.com and The New York Times.

John S. Friedman, editor of Secret Histories, produced the documentary Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie, which won an Academy Award.  Here is a link to part I of Hotel Terminus (link is now broken) a nearly four hour documentary about the notorious Nazi torturer. The complete film is 233 minutes long.

The above articles and film reminded me of Stephen Aftergood, publisher of Secrecy News, his blog for the Federation of American Scientists.  His site, he says, "works to challenge excessive government secrecy and to promote civilian oversight." Often he publishes government documents that have been declassified or leaked to him and the press.  Some examples include the infamous  Bush Office of Legal Counsel Torture Memos, featuring the August 1, 2002 memorandum for John Rizzo, Acting General Counsel of the CIA.

Here is an  interview that U.S. News and World Report conducted with Aftergood.

Thursday, February 19, 2015


UPDATE: student paper submission deadline
 has been extended to Mon., Feb. 27th.
 Papers may be dropped off in the
English Dept. Office (C245) or emailed to pccBordersConference@gmail.com.
Include full name, email address, telephone,
 and instructor name. No attachments, please;
 paste essays into email.

  Veteran, Poet, and Essayist
PCC Borders of Diversity Student Conference
 keynote speaker
He will read his work and sign his books,
 from 1:00-3:00 PM
Read his poem
"Here, Bullet" 
at his website

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Magazine Thing

Once a week (not really) I'll put up a brief description of a magazine of interest, usually a literary magazine. One that takes submissions from people not their uncle.

Update: February 16, 2015
Zyzzyva has the clever tag line, "The Last Word: West Coast Writers and Artists." Based in San Francisco, they aim to publish "mostly West Coast writers," Oscar Villalon of the magazine says. I just happened upon this article, "San Francisco’s Zyzzyva Turns 30 with Literary Aplomb," from KQED, January 9, 2015.  The Washington Post also reported "Zyzzyva Reaches No. 100," April 21, 2014.

Update: February 8, 2015
I posted Every Writers Resource a couple of weeks ago, but it deserves one more post. It provides a new listing for a literary magazine at least every week. On February 7th they provided information about The Bleeding Lion: A Journal of Arts and Letters. At both sites you can learn about the magazine's interests and submission guidelines. When you're at Every Writers Resource subscribe to their email updates. It's helpful to readers and potential contributors.

Update: January, 31, 2015
Rolling Stone, January 30, 2015, announces: 
"For the first time ever, Rolling Stone is opening up [their] vast archive of award-winning music, political and cultural reporting — dating back five decades, to our 1967 launch — online for free. In collaboration with Google Play, articles by notable writers including Hunter S. Thompson, Cameron Crowe and Matt Taibbi are now available to read on Android and iOS phones and tablets via the Google Play Newsstand, Google's news reader app optimized for phones and tablets. Additionally, Rolling Stone's daily coverage of music, politics, movies, TV, sports and culture is available on the Play Newsstand.

"Read more: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/rolling-stone-teams-with-google-play-to-open-archives-in-unprecedented-way-20150130#ixzz3QQlpo5FJ
Follow us: @rollingstone on Twitter | RollingStone on Facebook"

Literary Magazine Lists
There's Every Writers Resource dot com's Top 50 Llterary Magazines. Here is a list of Los Angeles literary magazines.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

R.I.P.: Philip Levine (Jan. 10, 1928-Feb. 14, 2015)

"What Work Is"  by poet Philip Levine, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2011-12, is worth reading. At this page an audio version captures Levine introducing the poem.  No matter what class you're in, you might like to read it and listen to it. You can also watch him reading it  to AFL-CIO members. Here is an interview Levine did with Bill Moyers about the American worker. Good sites with Levine biographical information and examples of his poetry: American Academy of Poets, Poetry FoundationU.S. Poet Laureate program, and the Bill Moyers program with poems about work. Here is a profile of Levine, below, from the PBS NewsHour. 

You can also see it at the PBS NewsHour site where "Poet Philip Levine Recalls Life at the Factory". Remember Levine's reference to Wagner in his poem? Here is a sample of Wagner's music: if you've seen the film "Apocalypse Now" you'll know Ride of the Valkyries; and here's one of his operas, Lohengrin. Maybe you'll like Wagner more than Levine does.

Levine, born January 10, 1928, died February 14, 2015. You can read his New York Times obituary here. The Times also ran an appreciation here.

New York Times interview showed that "Philip Levine Still Knows How to Make Trouble". Philip "Trouble" Levine makes an appearance in this 2012 profile in the LA Weekly. David Kippen, owner of Boyle Heights bookstore  and lending library Libros Schmibros, had this this to say about Levine being named U.S. Poet Laureate. Levine's inaugural reading as U.S. Poet Laureate was videotaped, and so was An Evening with Philip Levine, U.S. Poet Laureate. It was part of the L.A. Public Library's ALOUDla. Here is a video of an interview Levine did with Bill Moyers:

When curious about the authors you are reading always check the Paris Review to see if they had ever taken questions from the magazine.  Philip Levine did.  Here's an excerpt from the interview that appeared in the Paris Review, Summer 1988:

INTERVIEWER: In Twentieth Century Pleasures, Robert Hass says that rhythm in poetry provides revolutionary ground through its direct access to the unconscious . . .

PHILIP LEVINE: We all agree with that. Rhythm is deep and it touches us in ways that we don’t understand. We know that language used rhythmically has some kind of power to delight, to upset, to exalt, and it was that kind of rhythmic language that first excited me. But I didn’t encounter it first in poetry . . . perhaps simply in speech, in prayer, preaching. That made me want to create it. My earliest poems were a way of talking to somebody. I suppose to myself. I spoke them and I memorized them. I constantly changed them. I would go out and work on my rain poem and improve it.

INTERVIEWER: Rain was always a favorite theme?

LEVINE: Rain was my first, and I guess, a constant theme. But things like wind in the winter, the trees, and my sense of relationship with them. You could actually see the stars, we were on the outskirts of Detroit, there were no factories around. So you could see the stars and, oh the world is, you know, a cosmos, is immense.

INTERVIEWER: When did you start writing?

LEVINE: Writing was something I did in school with some enjoyment because I did it well. And then, you know, I put it aside, the way you do—I guess I started getting interested in girls, what have you. I don’t remember doing any writing at the ages of say, sixteen or seventeen. I rediscovered poetry at the age of eighteen.

INTERVIEWER: Do you know a lot of poetry by heart?

LEVINE: My memory has faded badly. I used to know dozens of poems by heart. I memorized them when I worked in factories and recited them to myself.

INTERVIEWER: Did you work in an auto factory?

LEVINE: Yes. I worked for Cadillac, in their transmission factory, and for Chevrolet. You could recite poems aloud in there. The noise was so stupendous. Some people singing, some people talking to themselves, a lot of communication going on with nothing, no one to hear.

INTERVIEWER: How long did you work in the factories?

LEVINE: I started doing factory work at about the age of fourteen. When I turned college age I had to make a decision about what I was going to do about my life. My high-school teachers encouraged me to go to college. I stood in line at Wayne State University to enroll, and when I got up to the head of the line, this woman said, “Can I help you?” I said, “I’d like to go to college.” She said, “Do you want a bachelor’s?” I said, “I already have a place to live.” Because to me a bachelor’s was a small apartment. I had no idea that there was such a thing as a bachelor’s degree. The people at Wayne were incredibly savvy. Instead of laughing at me, she explained what my options were and what bachelor’s meant. They were used to us shlumps out of the city of Detroit. There, at college, I encountered modern poetry. And I loved it. Loved it.

Levine at Wayne State University, Detroit,
 in 1950, the year he graduated from the college.

INTERVIEWER: Where does a poem begin for you? Do you take notes for poems? Do you get up in the middle of the night?

LEVINE: They begin in different ways, and over the course of my writing life the process has changed. When I was a kid speaking poetry I never wrote it down; those poems began with a phrase and then I would try to employ the vocabulary and the structure of the phrase to create a fabric of repetitions. When I started writing poetry at eighteen, the poems seemed to spring outward from a visual image. It was that precise visual image I was out to capture, that’s what excited me; the poem became the means for pushing forward the images I wanted the reader to devour. Then Yeats set me on fire. I mean the language is exalted, yet it sounds like somebody talking and singing at the same time. I thought, This is it. And I still kind of feel this is it. This is the perfection of form. It’s got speech, song, it’s high rhetoric and yet it doesn’t sound remote or false. A poem like [Yeats's] “Easter, 1916.” I said, Jesus Christ, this is so much what I want. It doesn’t matter about his stupid attitudes. He wrote one poem about his daughter, such a sexist poem. But it’s so beautifully done. I remember telling a woman friend of mine, “Isn’t this an incredible poem?” And she got very angry with me; “It’s so sexist,” she said, “look at this!” I said, sure, it’s like Eliot’s anti-Semitic stuff, “the Jew squats on the windowsill”; fuck you, Eliot, but the poem is exquisite. Then somewhere in my forties I hit a kind of phase of automatic writing. I would really be taken, sort of seized, and just write the stuff! It would just come pouring out, hundreds of lines. Then the process of making a poem became quite different: it became seeing what was inside this great blast of language and imagery, and finding the core.


How did you then revise? What was your process of shaping?


The process was reducing this, say, 500 lines to 150, tailoring and shaping it, finding the central imagery and throwing away what seemed excess or what was just part of the road to getting there. Then putting it together in some kind of dramatic, coherent, or narrative structure. That was fun, too.

INTERVIEWER: You treat some of the great novelistic themes—war and peace, power and class struggle and oppression in society, the shifts of luck and fortune with time—in your poems, particularly in your long poems.

LEVINE: What I regard as novelistic about my work is the telling of tales, which is utterly natural to me, and so is the presentation of characters. The other day when I was testifying in court in a civil disobedience case, the district attorney objected to my presentation because, he said, it was narrative. The judge sustained the objection; I tried to ask him what was wrong with a narrative, but he wouldn’t answer. I was deeply wounded. How can a poet or fiction writer tell the truth in court if he or she can’t present the events in a meaningful sequence, which is what a story is? The message is: Stay out of court. One of the aspects of my own poetry I like best is the presence of people who don’t seem to make it into other people’s poems. Much of our recent poetry seems totally without people. Except for the speaker, no one is there. There’s a lot of snow, a moose walks across the field, the trees darken, the sun begins to set, and a window opens. Maybe from a great distance you can see an old woman in a dark shawl carrying an unrecognizable bundle into the gathering gloom. That’s one familiar poem. In others you get people you’d sooner not meet. They live in the suburbs of a large city, have two children, own a Volvo stationwagon; they love their psychiatrists but are having an affair with someone else. Their greatest terror is that they’ll become like their parents and maybe do something dreadful, like furnish the house in knotty pine. You read twenty of those poems and you’re yearning for snow fields and moose tracks.

INTERVIEWER: Do you feel a split between your life as a political person and your life as a poet?

LEVINE: I’m cowardly. I should stop paying my taxes. I know that the government in Washington is full of terrible people with terrible plans. They will murder people here and abroad to gain more power. Those who have dominated our country most of my adult life are interested in maintaining an empire, subjugating other people, enslaving them if need be, and finally killing those who protest so that wealthy and powerful Americans can go on enjoying their advantages over others. I’m not doing a thing about it. I’m not a man of action; It finally comes down to that. I’m not so profoundly moral that I can often overcome my fears of prison or torture or exile or poverty. I’m a contemplative person who goes in the corner and writes. What can we do? I guess we can hang on and encourage each other, dig in, protest in every peaceful way possible, and hope that people are better than they seem. We can describe ourselves as horribly racist people, which we are, as imperialists, which we have been and are, but we can also see ourselves as bountiful, gracious, full of wit, courage, resourcefulness. I still believe in this country, that it can fulfill the destiny Blake and Whitman envisioned. I still believe in American poetry.

INTERVIEWER: The location and the tone of “They Feed They Lion” indicates a shift in your versification and in the intensity of your voice. How did the poem come about?

LEVINE: I had been to Detroit after the riots in 1968 and I was struck by a number of things. One was how scared I was. The riots took place in exactly the same neighborhood I grew up in. I went back with a set of rather standard emotions, or standard for me anyway, about how wonderful it was that black people were letting white Americans know what this place was all about. But when I got there I was scared. People were looking at me like I was exactly what I was—middle class, middle-aged, white. There was a kind of boiling up of different emotions that I hadn’t expected, and it was that complexity of emotions that really produced the poem—my own rage toward America, my own anger. I mean, this was the America of the Vietnam War, and to me it was as though we were fighting two racist wars, one in Vietnam and one in the cities of America. We didn’t have Asians, we had blacks to persecute and kill and firebomb, or morally, mentally, and emotionally firebomb. So a lot of those emotions just boiled up. I wrote the poem very quickly. I went to a party, a wedding party, and I got very drunk, and smoked a lot of dope, which is something I rarely do (I find it bad for my memory), and I had a good time. There was a lot of dancing at this party, and I danced and danced. It was a time of crazy dance parties. I went home and in the middle of the night I woke up with the idea for the poem. But I was still a wreck. I didn’t try to write it, and in fact I waited perhaps two or three days with the notion that there was this poem, it was going to look this way, the line was going to be influenced by Christopher Smart’s line in “Jubilate Agno.” I waited about three days, and then I felt really quite sane, fit, smart, and I wrote the poem, probably in an hour, hour and a half.

Photograph of Levine for his poetry collection The Mercy (1999).
 The book was dedicated to his mother and the photo was taken by his  wife.

INTERVIEWER: You’ve written a great deal about family life.

LEVINE: Yes, about both my families, the one I was born into and the one my wife and I have created. To me they truly feel like two different entities. One exists mainly in memory, for most of those people have died. I’m very powerfully tied to the one we’ve created, to my kids, and now to the families they’re creating.

INTERVIEWER: It’s very hard to have a clear sense of the family you come from because you seem to fictionalize it in your poems. It’s not consistent. For example, did your father leave your family when you were a small child?

LEVINE: My father died when I was very young. But often the speaker in my poems is not me; when it’s me, he died, and when the speaker is someone else the father could have done anything. As a child of five his dying was leaving; I didn’t understand death. You’re absolutely right, that family is often fictionalized, partly to protect the innocent or the guilty, however you see those people. I’ve invented relatives I never had so I could talk about the ones I did have without the fear of insulting people I love. I have one relative I love a great deal who did a variety of things the world might call awful. I don’t see his or her behavior that way at all; I’m deeply moved by his or her rebelliousness and audacity.

INTERVIEWER: Let’s talk about the Tom Jefferson poem, your most recent.

LEVINE: I went back to Detroit last October. I discovered in some of the areas that had been burned out back in ’67 or torn down for an urban renewal that never took place, people had moved back in, leading what was almost a semi-rural life. Much of what’s in the city was absent; there were no stores around, very few houses, no large buildings. Lots of empty spaces, vacant lots, almost like the Detroit I knew during the war. And people were farming, too, gardening on a scale. They had truck gardens, kept animals, what have you. It was right near the ballpark, so at night when the Tigers were playing there would be thousands of people there. Then they would get in their cars and leave; the place would be almost empty. I met a guy who lived in one of these houses. He didn’t own it or rent it, and in fact he didn’t even know who owned it. He described his life there, and the poem rose out of the conversation we had. It also came out of the hope that the city might be reborn inside itself, out of its own ruins, phoenix-like, rising out of its own ashes. Except I don’t see it in heroic terms. The triumphs are small, personal, daily. Nothing grandly heroic is taking place; just animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be, even in this most devastated of American cities.

INTERVIEWER: Nothing heroic is happening in Detroit.

LEVINE: Nothing epic. Just the small heroics of getting through the day when the day doesn’t give a shit, getting through the world with as much dignity as you can pull together from the tiny resources left to you. It’s the truly heroic. The poem is a tribute to all these people who survived in the face of so much discouragement. They’ve survived everything America can dish out. No, nothing grandly heroic is happening in Detroit. I guess nothing grandly heroic ever took place there; it was always automobiles, automobiles, hard work, and low pay."

Too often we take poets and poetry too seriously. Maybe this blog post about Levine will help us change our mind:  "For the Poet Laureate the Joy of Tennis is in the Effort," that ran in The New York Times, September 10, 2011.

Philip and Fran Levine at the U.S. Open tennis championship in New York in September 2011.

Monday, February 2, 2015

1B: Arthur Miller (1915-2005) & Death of a Salesman UPDATE FEB. 8th

Arthur Miller: younger (at left); older (at right).
The New York Times has an extensive archive of articles on Arthur Miller.  Click here  to see their many reports, slide shows, and videos on him, from reviews to interviews to a celebration of his life in the theater.   

Miller also appeared on the Charlie Rose show where he offered his thoughts on what makes a great playwright.  With a little searching you can find many other interviews with Miller on YouTube.

Here is a wonderful video, thanks to a great find by Rosario Anguiano. It's A Conversation on Writing with Arthur Miller, and he talks about Death of a Salesman during the first three minutes of the program. It is all worth watching. Here is another: a 60 Minutes report on Arthur Miller.

You can also find Miller interviews in print. Here is one, an interview with Miller, that I found in The Paris Review, Summer 1966 issue. Miller was also interviewed by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 2002, and the Michigan Quarterly Review in 1998Miller was featured on a PBS American Masters Program. Go here to read their biography of him.

Brief notes about the characters in Death of a Salesman:
Willy Loman (said to be 60, pages 6&8; 63, page 42)
Linda Loman ("not even 60")
Happy (son of Willy and Linda, 32)
Biff (son of Willy and Linda, 34)
Bernard (son of Charley; Biff's age)
The Woman (Willy has an affair with her)
Charley ("Uncle Charley," next-door neighbor; friend, not related)
Uncle Ben (Willy's brother)
Howard Wagner (Willy's boss; the son of Willy's former boss)
Jenny (Charley's secretary)
Stanley (waiter)
Miss Forsythe (woman at restaurant)
Letta (woman at restaurant)

English 1B students: Print and Read:
Arthur Miller's "Tragedy and the Common Man." In this 1949 essay,  Miller makes clear the relationship between a character like Willy Loman and the more classical (and commonly accepted) tragic figures from Greek playwrights and Shakespeare.  BRING YOUR COPY--print it out--of "Tragedy and the Common Man" to class. You need not read it before class. Skimming it would be smart, however, 

If the above link to "Tragedy and the Common Man" does not work, try this link to get a copy of Miller's essay. It was posted by Prof. Eric Hibbison of J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in Richmond, VA.

If you've read "Tragedy and the Common Man" you've seen Miller's remark about the Oedipus and Orestes complexes. Thanks to the urging of Ricardo Paredes and Rafael Azizyan it's time to offer a briefing on said complexes.

These complexes begin with Greek tragedies by Sophocles and Euripides. Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus Tyrannus, the story of Oedipus, is about a man who fulfills a prophecy by unknowingly murdering his father and marrying his mother.  Sigmund Freud saw in this tale an example of a repressed personality passionately drawn to the parent of the opposite sex and severe hatred for the same sex parent (e.g., son loves mother, son hates father).

The Orestes complex is the opposite: in the story of Euripedes' Electra a man named Orestes kills his mother (with Electra's assistance) to avenge his father's death.  Freud took this play to serve as a template in describing the son whose extreme violent nature is directed against his mother while his deepest affection is reserved for his father. Today, with reference to both complexes, the offspring examined in this diagnosis may be a son or a daughter.

Maureen Dowd of The New York Times looks at the father-son relationship in the play and in our lives with Mike Nichols, stage and film director, and director of the Salesman production with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy. Here is The New York Times review of the production. NPR also did an interview with Hoffman about his performance; go to this page to listen to the interview.

Taking their bow: Linda Emond, left, as Linda Loman, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Willy.

Finally, you may wish to turn to the web pages of Prof. Barbara McManus, of the College of New Rochelle, and her discussion of Aristotle's definition of tragedy. Note how Aristotle calls for a character to be "renowned and prosperous."  What would Miller say to this?  Willy is neither, of course.  Miller's explanatory argument is not just for the drama critics and audiences of 1949, it may be for Aristotle too.

If you wish further help understanding the meaning of tragedy in dramatic literature, check Dr. L. Kip Wheeler's website for definitions of tragedy, tragic flaw and tragic hero.

For a discussion regarding the idea of a flashback in contrast to the past being concurrent to the present read Miller's remarks below. He made them in his interview with the National Endowment for the Arts:

"[Death of a Salesman] begins with its action, and there are no transitions. It is a kind of frontal attack on the conditions of [Willy Loman's] life, without any piddling around with techniques. The basic technique is very straightforward. It is told like a dream. In a dream, we are simply confronted with various loaded symbols, and where one is exhausted, it gives way to another. In Salesman, there is the use of a past in the present. It has been mistakenly called flashbacks, but there are no flashbacks in that play. It is a concurrence [my emphasis] of a past with the present, and that's a bit different."

In fall 2012 Manuel Gonzalez asserted that flashbacks do occur in the play,  after all.  I attempted to explain Miller's position by quoting William Faulkner's position re: the past: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Explain why you agree (or not) that Faulkner's words describe Miller's characterization of Willy.

These three clips, below, from three very different Death of a Salesman productions:

Fredric March starred as Willy Loman in the 1951 film
version of Death of a Salesman. Arthur Miller had
no control of the screenplay and was unhappy with
the film, which cut a number of scenes from his play.

Brian Dennehy was honored twice, a Tony Award (1999) and the
 Laurence Olivier Award (2005), for his stage performances
 of Willy Loman in New York and London, respectively.

Lee J. Cobb brought Willy Loman to the world in the 1949 stage premiere
 of Death of a Salesman. Here Cobb is--some believe he was the
 quintessential Willy--in the 1966 television broadcast.

Miller reads excerpts from Death of a Salesman.  This recording was made in Feb.1955 in New York City at the 92nd Street Y, home to many literary events. If the recording does not play, go to the 92nd Street Y archive to listen.

Questions re: Death of a Salesman: All Miller quotes below are taken from his “Tragedy and the Common Man” essay.

If we have time, we will form groups for discussion regarding these questions. If groups are formed, one group member will lead the discussion, one take notes and another will prepare to represent the group for a class discussion.  One set of notes per group will be collected at the end of the discussion. 

1. What does Miller mean when he says in his essay, “we are often held to be below tragedy or tragedy above us”? Does he agree with this belief? Do you? Why?

2. How is Willy Loman, as Miller writes, unwilling to “remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be a challenge to his dignity, his image of his rightful status”? Does Willy’s family—Linda, Biff and Happy—share this trait with him or not?  Explain.

3. Miller discusses “the underlying fear of being displaced” and its connection to tragedy.  How does this quality apply to Willy Loman?

4. Miller argues how “tragedy requires the finest appreciation by the writer of cause and effect.” Offer examples from Death of a Salesman that illustrate his claim. 

5. What is the difference between a hallucination, a dream, and a remembrance? Is Willy inhabiting a world of hallucinations or dreams? Neither? Are his remembrances mostly accurate, or not? Explain with specific references to Ben, the Woman, and Biff.

6. Why is it difficult to follow the action?  Am I missing something?  Why is Miller telling things in such a weird fashion?  Time is all over the place. (Some students have asked.)

7. How do each of Willy's family members react to Willy's  planned suicide?  What does their reaction--whether to confront, ignore, or be gentle--reveal about their character? 

8.  Willy favors Biff over Happy.  Why?  Is it because Biff is a talented athlete, the oldest, or reflects the nature of a succession in a powerful family?  Explain.

9.  Some members of the audience see Willy as suffering some sort of nervous disorder or mental disability.  If this is so, can Willy still be a tragic hero as Miller wants us to believe he is? When answering the question, recall Miller's assertion that "the tragic feeling is evoked in us when we are in the presence of a character who is ready to lay down his life, if need be, to secure one thing--his sense of personal dignity [my emphasis.] From Orestes to Hamlet, Medea to Macbeth, the underlying struggle is that of the individual attempting to gain his "rightful" position in his society."

10.  We know that the gods are present in Greek tragedies.  Are they present in Death of a Salesman?  Why or why not?

The 1949 premiere of Miller's Death of a Salesman,
 with Mildred Dunnock, Lee J . Cobb, Arthur Kennedy, and Cameron Mitchell.

Additional Questions from previous classes: 

1.  What is the importance of music playing at the opening and end of Act I? (Jeremy)

2. Why do you think that Willy is so stubborn? Why does he resist change? (Eunice)

3. Why does Willy demand that Linda not speak? (Felipe)

4.  Why does Biff tell his mother to dye her hair? 

5. Willy says, "That's a million dollar idea!" What is Willy revealing about himself when he says these words? (Shogo)

6. Why does Willy want to kill himself? (Dara)

7. Why does Happy not have the respect of his family? (Sydnee)

8. Reread the description of Feminist criticism in our literature textbook.  Apply its features to the character of Linda.

The Many Productions of Death of a Salesman
There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of productions of Death of a Salesman since its 1949 premiere.  Here are some memorable ones.

"A Yiddish play with the title Toyt fun a Salesman opened at the Parkway Theater in Brooklyn early in 1951. As most of the audience recognized from the name alone, the show was a translation of Arthur Miller’s drama Death of a Salesman. It seemed a mere footnote to the premiere production, which had completed its triumphal run on Broadway several months earlier, having won the Pulitzer Prize." A photograph of the production appears below.  (from The New York Times, May 18, 2012)

Alfredo Valente/Associated Press

Gene Lockhart, center, playing Willy Loman in the 1949 original production

 of “Death of a Salesman,” by Arthur Miller. (from The New York Times, May 18, 2012)

Philip Seymour Hoffman starred as Willy Loman in a New York production of Death of a Salesman in Spring 2012. See "Searching for the Life of a Salesman," The New York Times, March 8, 2012.  Maureen Dowd, also of the Times, talks to its director Mike Nichols about the significance of the father-son relationship in her article "How Oedipus Wrecks."

A scene from the 2012 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, with, from left,
Andrew Garfield, Finn Wittrock, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Linda Emond.

The South Coast Repertory (SCR) theatre in Costa Mesa, CA production of Death of a Salesman ran August-September 2013. Go to the SCR site for more information. The Los Angeles Times also profiled Charlie Robinson, who starred as Willy Loman.

Charlie Robinson as Willy Loman in the August-September 2013
 South Coast Repertory, Costa Mesa, production of Death of a Salesman

Arthur Miller with 1983 Chinese cast of Death of A Salesman.  Ruocheng Ying played Willy Loman in the production staged at the Peoples Art Theatre in Beijing. Photograph by Inge Morath. Read about Miller's recollections of the production here.

Image from a 2012 Australian production of Death of a Salesman, where its connection to American culture is apparent, it was said to be "more relevant to Australia than ever." Read about the production here.